Domestic violence: when given the chance to self-report, what do people say?

Intimate partner violence is a serious public health concern that can have deep and lasting impact on the lives of those affected. Unfortunately, intimate partner violence is not rare, and official reports undercount such offenses since many victims never report them. In the Relationships in America survey, 12 percent of women and 10 percent of men say that they have been slapped, punched, bit, scratched or kicked by their current romantic partner at least once during their relationship, and four percent of both men and women say it has happened “a few times,” while one percent of both men and women report they have been a victim of such abuse “numerous times.” These numbers nevertheless represent an undercount of those who have ever experienced physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner, since they do not count abusive relationships that end (since the measure only concerns current relationships).

Figure 14.1Frequency of physical violence victimization in current relationship, by gender
12 PERCENT OF WOMEN AND 10 PERCENT OF MEN SAY THAT THEY HAVE BEEN SLAPPED, PUNCHED, BIT, SCRATCHED OR KICKED BY THEIR CURRENT ROMANTIC PARTNER AT LEAST ONCE DURING THEIR RELATIONSHIP.

When we asked divorcees about their reasons for wanting a divorce, an alarming 21 percent of women and eight (8) percent of men say that physical violence was at least one of the contributing factors in their divorce, suggesting that while physical violence is present in a minority of intact relationships, for women it is more common in past relationships (in this case, marriages).

21 PERCENT OF WOMEN AND EIGHT (8) PERCENT OF MEN SAY THAT PHYSICAL VIOLENCE WAS AT LEAST ONE OF THE CONTRIBUTING FACTORS IN THEIR DIVORCE.

Stereotypes about men initiating violence against their intimate partners are prevalent. While numerous studies52 have noted that men are the perpetrators of the majority of domestic abuse, intimate partner violence is not exclusively a women’s issue. Nearly 1 in 10 partnered men reports having experienced violence at the hands of their current partner. However, resources are often less available for male victims of domestic violence. One study even found that male victims of domestic violence who sought help were more likely to be arrested than the perpetrator of the violence.53

Figure 14.2Number of times a victim of physical violence in a current relationship, by marial status

Brad Wilcox, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project, created some controversy in June 2014 when he published an opinion in the Washington Post noting that rates of domestic violence against both women and their children are lower for married women than for those who cohabit.54

When we evaluated his statement with RIAdata, we found support for Wilcox’s assertion. In their current relationship, cohabiting women are far more likely to report violence than their married peers. Twice as many say they have been victims at least once in their current relationship (20 percent vs. 10 percent). Cohabiting women are also twice as likely to say they have been victims “a few times” (7.4 percent vs. 3.6 percent), and three times as likely to be routinely victimized (1.6 percent vs. 0.5 percent).

Wilcox’s critics say that marriage may not be a panacea, because those who marry tend to be better educated and have more material resources, each of which reduces personal risk of domestic abuse. In other words, some assert that marriage may not reduce abuse, but that those kinds of people who get married are less prone to abuse—or less apt to tolerate abuse—than those who cohabit. While it’s beyond the scope of cross-sectional data to answer such questions of “social selectivity,” it is clear that women are more likely to experience abuse in cohabiting relationships than in marital ones.

Experiences in childhood can have a profound impact on the likelihood of tolerating physical violence in adulthood. Although the survey did not inquire about respondents’ exposure to domestic violence during their childhood, it is clear that negative family experiences in childhood predict higher likelihood of currently being in a relationship in which one has been a victim of intimate partner violence. Reporting a warm, close relationship with your mother and a loving atmosphere in the home as a child are both associated with lower rates of being a victim of domestic violence perpetrated by one’s current partner. Meanwhile, reporting that one’s family relationships as a child were “confusing, inconsistent or unpredictable,” or that matters from family experience are still “difficult to come to terms with” predict higher rates of experiencing intimate partner violence.

It may be the case that those who come from broken homes or confusing familial relationships have fewer resources, and may be less able to escape domestic violence once it begins because of financial dependence on an intimate partner. Perhaps, but when we account for the effects of education, household income, race, age and gender, we still find that those who report bad childhood experiences such as those noted above are more likely to be in a relationship that has involved physical violence.

While the present data is insufficient to make strong claims on the matter, we can say that those who had worse childhood experiences are more likely to experience domestic violence in their current relationships. Further research should focus on mechanisms that might underlie this link.


52 Tjaden, Patricia and Thoennes, Nancy. “Full Report of the Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women: Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey.” National Institute of Justice. 2000. Retrieved August 26, 2014.

53 Douglas, Emily and Hines, Denise. “The Helpseeking Experiences of Men Who Sustain Intimate Partner Violence: An Overlooked Population and Implications for Practice.Journal of Family Violence 26, no. 6 (2011): 473-485.

54 Wilcox, Bradford and Wilson, Robin. “One Way to End Violence Against Women? Married Dads.The Washington Post. June 10, 2014. Retrieved August 26, 2014.

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